Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster biopic was released in the U.S. just after the anniversary of the Trinity test, the culmination of the Manhattan Project on July 16, 1945, that paved the way for the postwar Pax Americana. In South Korea, it will hit screens on National Liberation Day, which marks Tokyo’s Aug. 15 surrender in World War II — something the bomb is credited with. And in Japan itself, which next month will see 78 years since Little Boy and Fat Boy were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, the movie isn’t scheduled for release at all yet.
That might reflect the country’s complicated views on the war. In the U.S., the movie has reopened the debate on the bomb and whether it was a war crime. These revisionist discussions, which are based on what we know now, aren’t especially helpful. Contrary to some reports, Oppenheimer has absolutely not been banned in Japan — unlike some of its Asian neighbors, the country rarely takes such steps, even for politically insensitive content. But the movie’s distributor has yet to schedule a release date; assuming one comes at all, it will be some time after the Aug. 6 and 9 memorials.
Even on those anniversaries, Japan tends to avoid discussion of the rights and wrongs. That’s not to say its citizens have a uniform position — far from it. A 2015 poll by public broadcaster NHK found that 40% of the population agreed with the proposition that the U.S. had no choice but to use the bomb. Interestingly, in Hiroshima, that number was 44% — higher than the country at large — and topped those who called it “unforgivable.”
But if and when local audiences can have their say on the movie, perhaps it may trigger a discussion instead on Japan’s ambiguous, if not contradictory, stance toward nuclear weapons — a technology it publicly opposes, but simultaneously depends on for its survival in an increasingly hostile neighborhood. As the country prepares for a historic shift in defense spending, the time for that debate is now.
One rather typical headline from Kyodo News on Oppenheimer’s U.S. premiere reads, “Biography of the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’ Released; Doesn’t Depict the Devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” It’s a common sentiment on both sides of the Pacific, but Japan’s own depictions also often lack such historical context, tending instead toward sentimental looks at the rank-and-file caught up in events. The horrors both visited on the country and those Japan committed elsewhere are treated more akin to a natural disaster.
Not retreading old arguments might be wiser, of course. While the U.S. is still chewing over the decision to use the bomb back then, Japan has largely accepted the postwar reality. In a recent survey, a record 90% praised the U.S.-Japan alliance for helping preserve the country’s peace and safety, a figure that has steadily climbed over the past 40 years.
Last year, Tokyo came close to starting a serious debate on the appropriateness of its three non-nuclear principles, under which the government is committed to not possessing, producing or permitting atomic weapons to be brought into the country. Early in 2022, Shinzo Abe suggested that it was time to discuss hosting U.S. nukes. At the time, Abe was a senior voice in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, one who many then thought could have had a third spin as prime minister.
“We should not regard a discussion on how the world’s security is maintained as taboo,” Abe said at the time, referencing a commotion caused in 2006 when then-LDP policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa suggested discussing the building of atomic weapons in response to North Korea’s first nuclear test. Bemusing as it may seem now, concerns ran high at the time over Japanese remilitarization rather than the rapidly strengthening China, and the comments caused international alarm. A few years earlier, a deputy vice-minister of defense was forced to resign after making similar remarks.
Many divisions in Japan have moved on since, but this debate isn’t one of them. The idea of weapon sharing was flatly rejected by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose family hails from Hiroshima and is a lifelong denuclearization advocate. Abe was assassinated before he could capitalize on Kishida’s relatively weak public support. Lacking a significant voice, the discussion has never really launched.
In May, the prime minister took the Group of Seven leaders to view the bomb’s aftermath in Hiroshima, with the premiers pledging to work toward “an ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.” Contrast that with the alarmism of former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who the same month said Japan was “heading towards becoming a nuclear power in five years.” This is a common refrain of Kissinger’s, who for decades fretted over the specter of a remilitarized Tokyo and pushed for the U.S. to move closer to China to restrain it.
Kishida will have no such plans. But he should not be so quick to dismiss the discussion. In a world where conflict between the U.S. and China seems increasingly possible, Japan must not be afraid to have real talks about how it would respond, including what part atomic weapons would play — and what might happen if the U.S. nuclear umbrella, perhaps in the hands of a less reliable White House, was no longer extended over the country. Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine has powerfully demonstrated that at least some of the post-Cold War assumptions were wrong; Japan can’t afford to be left in a decades-old debate when conflict around Taiwan seems closer than ever.
“Oppenheimer” may have revived an unhelpful reinterpretation of WWII. But assuming viewers in Japan get a chance to experience it, it might trigger a more useful discourse in the country that experienced the horrors firsthand.
Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia, and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.
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